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Person: Herschel (3), Caroline Lucretia
John Herschel was an English scientist who worked on astronomy and early photography. He was the son of William Herschel.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- When John Herschel was born in 1792 William was 55 years old and Mary was 42.
- In addition to his parents, his aunt Caroline Herschel was another important figure in John Herschel's upbringing.
- William Herschel was not only a leading astronomer but he also had a great talent for music.
- John was brought up in Observatory House, with its 40 foot telescope, where music, science and religion were dominant.
- Schooling did present some problems for John.
- In addition to schooling at Clewer and Hitcham, John was tutored at home by Mr Rogers, a private mathematics tutor, to prepare him for university.
- He entered St John's College Cambridge in 1809.
- As an undergraduate Herschel made friends with Peacock and Babbage.
- We should also say that the Analytical Society was not the first move towards Continental mathematics in England, for Woodhouse who was one of Herschel's lecturers at Cambridge, had written a fine book which took the Leibniz approach to the calculus rather than Newton's approach.
- Herschel, together with Peacock, translated Lacroix's Traité du calcul différentiel et du calcul intégral Ⓣ(Treatise on differential calculus and integral calculus) which examined these different approaches to the calculus.
- Herschel did not offer these three approaches with equal recommendation for he believed that the algebraic approach of Lagrange was the right one.
- Herschel graduated in 1813 taking first place in the final examination.
- Peacock came second to Herschel while Babbage had withdrawn mainly because he could not compete with Herschel and he was not prepared to enter a competition which he knew that he could not win.
- Following his graduation Herschel became first Smith's prizeman and was elected a fellow of St John's College.
- Despite the demise of the Analytical Society Herschel continued to work on mathematics.
- It is interesting to think that it was in some ways due to Herschel's remarkable all round abilities that he failed to make an advance of the depth that he was clearly capable of in any of the subjects that he studied.
- Perhaps most surprising of all was the decision that Herschel made after graduating.
- Indeed John Herschel began to undertake work in astronomy from this time although he also studied other topics.
- Even before his first astronomy paper was published, Herschel published details of his chemical and photography experiments in 1819 which, 20 years later, would prove of fundamental importance in the development of photography.
- Herschel's great versatility is shown by the fact that in 1821, having recently become involved in astronomy and chemistry, he was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London for his work on mathematical analysis.
- Babbage and Herschel remained close friends and the two travelled together to Italy and Switzerland in 1821.
- They shared a love of climbing mountains but their exploits here were not simply for pleasure as Herschel continually learnt about science from his environment.
- Other trips abroad by Herschel included one in 1822 and another with Babbage in 1824.
- On the 1824 trip Herschel had visited Fraunhofer and had met with Fox Talbot who was visiting Fraunhofer at the time.
- 1822 was the year in which John Herschel published his first paper on astronomy, a relatively minor work on a new method to calculate eclipses of the moon.
- John Herschel published an important paper on this topic in 1826 but did not succeed in determining the parallax of any star.
- Herschel's involvement with the Royal Society had important influences on his career.
- This was part of a battle that was going on in the Society between reformers and traditionalists, Herschel being the champion of the reformers.
- In a slightly embarrassing episode for Herschel, he failed narrowly to be elected, the traditionalists winning the day.
- The Royal Society episode may have been the main reasons why Herschel decided to make a long visit to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
- Herschel sailed for South Africa in 1833, taking with him his own 20 foot refractor telescope.
- Among the many important scientific advances made by Herschel in South Africa was his observations of Halley's comet on its 1835 return.
- This could in some sense be said to constitute the discovery of the solar wind which is indeed the reason for the repulsive force discovered by Herschel.
- The geologist Lyell saw the irony in the fact that Herschel had done this work in South Africa because he failed to be elected President of the Royal Society.
- In 1838 Herschel returned to England not having had much time to reduce the many observations that he had made while there.
- Despite the delay, the publication was an event of great importance and Herschel received his second Copley Medal from the Royal Society for this work.
- On 22 January 1839 Herschel heard of Daguerre's work on photography from a casual remark in a letter written by Beaufort to Margaret his wife.
- Without knowing any details, Herschel was able to take photographs himself within a few days.
- Indeed Herschel was able to achieve this remarkably rapid breakthrough due to the work that he had conducted and published in 1819 on chemical processes related to photography.
- Herschel went on to publish a number of further papers on photography, in 1839, 1840 and 1842.
- Many people have wondered why Herschel himself never made the steps which would have led to his being recognised as the inventor of photography.
- It was not a job which Herschel found to his liking.
- There were difficulties in dealing with staff, difficulties in dealing with the Treasury, but perhaps most significantly of all to Herschel, he no longer could pursue his scientific interests.
- Herschel was a scientist by nature, not a business man.
Born 7 March 1792, Slough, Buckinghamshire, England. Died 11 May 1871, Hawkhurst, Kent, England.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Geography, Origin England, Physics
Thank you to the contributors under CC BY-SA 4.0!
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive